“Sally is truly moving the needle for us. She’s responding well to our multichannel campaigns, and we see potential growth in Kevin and Lynn. We’re so happy.” Laptop closes, presentation ends.
As marketers, we take comfort in bucketing millions of individuals into a pretty, little “persona package” that’s easy to make up and explain to clients: Sally, 36 years old, Caucasian, mother of two, shops at Old Navy, likes Taylor Swift and Starbucks, drives a Toyota Camry. Such an approach also allows us to reach for the quick win and create materials that “fit perfectly” into that cookie-cutter persona.
In reality, personas are a marketing crutch — laziness polished into a PowerPoint slide — and the weight they continue to hold amazes me. It’s hard to think about creating a truly personalized, contextually relevant marketing message knowing that billions of people exist. I’m a 44-year-old white male who lives in Texas and drives an SUV. According to probably every persona ever created, I must like country music and support President Trump. But that couldn’t be more wrong.
Of course, people are more complex than that. And they expect more: According to a 2016 Accenture report, 75% of consumers are more likely to purchase when organizations personalize their marketing efforts.
The Pitfalls of the Persona
When I took the creative director role at Match.com, my first goal was to forgo the notion that personas improve the user experience. Imagine you’re single and living in rural Arkansas. You log into Match.com and read about how to meet others on the subway or at nearby events. But there are no nearby events, and you’ve never ridden the subway.
This example may be oversimplified, but it highlights a fundamental shortcoming in persona-based marketing: The feelings that such a user encounters when seeking love are a huge opportunity to create real, personal, and meaningful experiences that make the user feel understood.
Moreover, and for digital experiences, the persona provides marketers a convenient excuse to get out of actually meeting their users. Mapping out a few personas that are then catered to only means that we’re defaulting to current user needs instead of creating new ones or the right ones. But the best companies are successfully marketing products and services to users before users realize they need them.
Consider the Individualism of the Individual
Personas stop innovation. Instead of making assumptions about people, we should use data to drive predictive marketing that adds value to their lives. We do this by making a moment trigger a marketing reaction rather than leaning on the “spray and pray” persona-based method. This process is called creating “missions,” and it allows us to speak to larger groups of people in a more personal way.
For example, if 7-Eleven wants to motivate someone pumping gas to buy goods in the store, how can it use data to do this? Well, users must get out of their cars to pump gas. This is a moment, so we take that moment and serve up something that can stimulate entry, like digital-display content that’s strategically created for parts of the day. In the morning, we show images of hot coffee and sticky cinnamon rolls; in the evening, a refreshing drink.
Unfortunately, personas probably aren’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be more informed. We live in a world full of data that, in the right hands, can render many personalized experiences. Instead of marginalizing huge swaths of the population, then, marketers should create a true value exchange in incredibly personal ways that render real conversions between brands and their consumers.